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Germany: The Rise of the Right

Angela Merkel’s slogan in her campaign for a fourth term as Chancellor was terminally bland and smug – “For a Germany in which we live well and love living” – but it did the job, sort of. Her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is back as the largest party, so Merkel gets to form the next coalition government. But the neo-fascists are now in the Bundestag (parliament) too, for the first time since the collapse of Nazi Germany.

It’s not Merkel’s fault, exactly, but the numbers tell the tale. The CDU had its worst result ever, down from 40 percent of the vote at the last election to only 33 percent this time. And it looks like the 7 percent of the vote that the CDU lost went straight to the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the neo-fascist party, whose support was up from just under 5 percent last time to 12.6 percent this time.

That makes the AfD the third biggest party in the Bundestag. All the other parties have sworn to have nothing to do with it, so Merkel’s party will have to seek its coalition partners elsewhere. It will take at least a month to make the coalition deal, which will probably link the CDU with the business-friendly Free Democrats and the Greens, but that is not the big story. The rise of the hard right is.

‘Rise’ is a relative term, of course: only one German in eight actually voted for the AfD. But that is still shocking in a country that thought it had permanently excised all that old Nazi stuff from its politics. And if you look more closely, the AfD’s support was strongest in the same parts of the country that voted strongly for the Nazis in the 1933 election that brought Hitler to power.

The AfD was founded by an economics professor who just wanted Germany to leave the euro currency, but in the past four years it has been taken over anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant ultra-nationalists, and they do sound a little bit like You-Know-Who at times.

Alice Weidel, the AfD’s co-leader, has described Merkel’s government as “pigs” who merely serve as “marionettes of the victorious powers of the Second World War, whose task it is to keep down the German people.” And the party’s other co-leader, Alexander Gauland, said in an election speech last week: “We have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars.”

That sort of comment might be interesting to debate in a university seminar on German history, but 72 years after Hitler’s death it is still too soon to say out loud in a Europe that was ravaged by German armies in the Second World War. Gauland, Weidel and their AfD colleagues are playing with fire and they are well aware of it.

The truly alarming thing, however, is not the occasional echo of the Nazis in AfD rhetoric. It is the fact that Germany is conforming to a general trend towards the authoritarian, ultra-nationalist right in Western politics.

Each country does it in its own historical style. The pro-Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom last year was actually led by isolationist “Little Englanders”. Their implausible promise of a glorious free-trading future for the UK outside the European Union was just a necessary nod in the direction of economic rationality – but the Brexiteers won because enough people wanted to believe them.

Similarly, Donald Trump fits comfortably into the American tradition: he is channelling American demagogues of the 1930 like Huey Long and Father Coughlin. The economic situation of American workers and the lower middle class today is close enough to that of the 1930s that they responded to his mixture of nationalism, dog-whistle racism and anti-big-business thetoric by voting him into the presidency.

In France, Marine Le Pen appealed to nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and the resentment of the long-term unemployed to win almost 34 percent of the vote in last May’s presidential election. She lost, but the more important fact is that one-third of French voters backed the neo-fascist candidate. And now, in German, the AfD.

The common thread that runs through all these events, beyond the racism, nationalism and xenophobia, is economic distress. The economies may be doing well, but a large proportion of the people are not. The gap between the rich and the rest was tolerated when everybody’s income was rising, but that has not been true for thirty years now, and patience among the “losers” has run out.

This is still early days, but the direction of the drift in Western politics is clear, and it is deeply undesirable. The only thing that will stop it is decisive action to narrow the income gap again, but that is very hard to do in the face of the currently dominant economic doctrine.

Houston, we have a problem.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“The AfD…times”; and “That sort…of it”)

Gerhard Schroeder’s Long Game

10 October 2005

Gerhard Schroeder’s Long Game

By Gwynne Dyer

Gerhard Schroeder has already won, even if he has to give up being the chancellor of Germany. The “grand coalition” talks that begin on 17 October between his Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the conservative

Christian Democratic Union would make CDU leader Angela Merkel the new chancellor, but her cabinet would be exactly balanced between socialist and conservative members — and the SPD would hold the key foreign, finance, justice and labour ministries. If those talks fail, Schroeder might even be back as chancellor.

Not bad going for a politician who never got the unemployment rate below ten percent during seven years in power. His cautious attempts to cut Germany’s lavish social benefits and to make it easier for German companies to lay off workers led to a split in his own party, with the radical wing breaking away to form a new Left Party in alliance with the ex-Communists of former East Germany. Just three months ago, when he called a national election a year ahead of time, opinion polls put the conservatives 21 points ahead of the SPD. But Schroeder is the supreme political tactician of his generation.

He ruthlessly exploited every mistake Angela Merkel made during the campaign, and she made quite a few. The most damaging, perhaps, was to choose Paul Kirchhof, the country’s best-known advocate of a “flat tax”, as her shadow finance minister. Schroeder lampooned him as “the professor from Heidelberg” who wanted teachers, nurses and millionaires all to pay the same 25 percent in income tax, misrepresenting Kirchhof’s pet idea as official CDU policy, and the numbers started to move.

By the time Germans voted on 18 September, Schroeder had appeared at an astonishing 120 rallies and the SPD had almost closed the gap, winning 34.3 percent of the votes to the CDU’s 35.2 percent. Both of the major parties got a lower share of the vote than in almost any previous election, but the left as a whole, including the Greens, the SPD’s partners in the outgoing coalition, and the new Left Party, won well over half the seats in the Bundestag.

Schroeder had vowed not to bring the breakaway Left Party into any SPD-led coalition, but Merkel was in an even worse position. Once Green Party leader Joschka Fischer ruled out any deal with the CDU, her only

potential coalition partner was the right-wing Free Democratic Party (FDP), which won only 9.8 percent of the vote. “There is no majority for a neo-conservative government in Germany,” Fischer was quick to point out.

“This is a very important signal that we have to take into account in our conversations.”

Fischer was implying that the only real option was a “grand coalition” between the two major parties, and after three weeks of haggling over who would be the chancellor in that coalition negotiations on a joint programme will soon be getting underway. But the Greens would not even be a part of that coalition, so why did Fischer look just as pleased with the outcome as Schroeder himself?

In return for giving up the chancellorship, Schroeder has managed to win all the other cabinet positions that the SPD most cares about. The

SPD will hold the foreign ministry, which means that Germany will not drop its opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, nor will Merkel be able to wreck the negotiations for Turkey’s entry into the European Union. It will hold the finance ministry, which means the CDU’s plans for radical tax changes must wait. It will hold the labour ministry, which means that Merkel’s plans for radical reforms in the labour market will not happen.

Joschka Fischer is also happy, because the negotiations for a “grand coalition”, which must conclude by 12 November, may not produce agreement on a joint programme, in which case the president, Horst Koehler,  would have two choices. He could nominate one of the major party leaders as chancellor and put it to a secret vote in the Bundestag. But Merkel would lose such a vote, given the overall “left” majority in the legislature, whereas Schroeder would almost certainly win it and go on to form a minority government with the Greens.

Or Koehler could just call a new election — which the SPD would probably win, since the CDU would have no time to choose a more charismatic leader than the wooden Merkel. Either way, the signs point to a new

SPD-Green minority government that depends on Left Party votes to get key legislation through the Bundestag. And even if the “grand coalition” happens, it would probably break down and lead to a new election and a similar outcome before very long. The master tactician wins again.

The only problem is that these combinations and permutations all lead to the same outcome: something close to paralysis in the reform process. There will be no radical changes to break Germany out of its current pattern of slow growth and high unemployment. But then, that is what the Germans actually voted for.

Germany is already a very rich country, and even the unemployed don’t suffer extreme deprivation. Rather than accept radical change and considerable sacrifice in a gamble that that might break the country out of its present pattern, most Germans would rather go on more or less as they are. And it is their country, after all.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 6. (“He ruthlessly…move”; and “Fischer…himself”)